In conversation with the rising music polymath

In tendai’s ‘Time In Our Lives’, one of his most emotionally raw singles, he dons a long red robe. The garment was worn by his mother when she was pregnant with him, and a traditional bark cloth also lies on the ground, used by people to pray over children if they are far away. These semiotics charge the melancholic song – which is about a major relationship ending – with redemptive ideas of rebirth, love and protection. It’s this heightened attention to visuals, and how they add nuanced layers to his atmospheric sonic work, that people have come to expect from the deeply thoughtful artist. Signed to 0207 – Def Jam’s UK label – the East-Londoner has released a spectrum of singles that flirt with and fuse everything from future RnB, soul, alt-pop and rock into a soundscape that is utterly idiosyncratic. In addition to his music, the multi-instrumentalist is also adept at producing, most recently working on Stormzy’s latest album, This Is What I Mean. At 22 years old (let that sink in), we’re expecting big things on the not-so-distant horizon, especially following his recent three:one drop, a varied triptych of songs.

Port had the pleasure of catching up with tendai, who reflected on faith and the strength of multi-cultural London.

You’ve described your sound in terms of colour, notably ‘dark purple’, and I loved the abstract, synesthetic quality that had. Listening to your music I can see, or hear, what you mean. Can you expand on those choice of words?

I’ve always been described as someone who potentially has synesthesia. I don’t know if I have it, but I definitely view music and emotions through colour. For me, colour is so connected to artistry because it can convey scenes and emotions so powerfully. When I’m making music on my laptop, I’ll often colour code the project based on what it feels like it’s saying to me. This palette even helps me write to it. If I know a piece of music is green, maybe what I add needs to feel earthy. It’s liberating, because even if one instrumental element is rock, I’m not locked into just adding more rock – maybe electronic drums, a hard hitting gritty vocal or a melancholic RnB piano line make sense because the project is green. I am not always dark purple, but me describing my sound as such is really an attempt to understand my own music and the unknowable things that come through me through God.

Growing up, music was an important part of your family life. How did those early exposures to music shape you?

My earliest exposures to music centered around the vocal. My mum, father, brother and sister would all sing acapella together, which is how my mum’s family in Uganda would sing. In my church growing up it wasn’t centered around instruments, it was the voice. There would always be choir rehearsals at our house; I’d be in my bedroom while they’re practicing and I’m just drinking the harmonies in. That shaped me in a really dramatic way because, no matter where I am genre wise, the voice is the thing that remains core. My mentor once said my voice can push. All of those years back I learnt the power of just a vocal, or when multiple voices sing in sync, how it can really push out and have strength. In times gone by, I used to have so many different layers of production. Whereas now it’s normally five tracks, whether that’s guitar, drums, bass, piano, and then a vocal. Really stripped back, elemental music. That approach definitely comes from being in an acapella group.

In a way, back then, music was explicitly tied to faith. What’s the relationship between music and faith for you now? 

The whole of last year year was quite intense and overwhelming, but what has kept me rooted in this journey has been my connection to God. I was talking to my friend the other day about how we don’t like to swear in our songs and how we feel our music is spiritually led. Almost like we’re passengers, that it comes from somewhere and we receive it. We agreed that in many ways what we make is similar to gospel music, in that it’s about human experience for the human spirit. I feel a deeper connection to God when listening to the music that I’ve made recently. I’m very aware that it’s come through me. There are certain things that I would do with a guitar, or how I’ve mixed something, that I don’t fully understand. It came from somewhere a lot more powerful than myself.

Would you say you have a process when it comes to writing, creating, recording – where does your songwriting begin, and how do you develop it to a place where you’re happy with it?

I think my process is potentially a longwinded one. I am quite patient, creatively, as everyone who’s worked with me will know. I’ll listen to the instrumental as long as it takes before writing lyrics. I might have an idea, but I won’t record or write anything immediately because I’m aware that I don’t fully understand it yet. So I sit on it for maybe a month or two, and then whenever it aligns with whatever’s going on in life, I’m ready. A vocal will come to me, and I try to be as tight and articulate as possible. When the lyrics arrive sometimes I’ll record that same day when I know that something’s going on. I can feel that, when I’m ready to be a vessel. Sometimes I’ll be sweating, but I’m not even moving. Then I’ll know that the emotion is in its rawest form, and it needs to be right now.

That sounds like an intuitive, instinctual way of working, where you listen to yourself, knowing when to turn up. A nice, spontaneous way of approaching music.

Sometimes it’s nice – sometimes! The creative’s mind can be quite impatient because a lot of the time we put our self-worth in with our creative output. If I haven’t written a song in a month, I might begin to think, ‘oh, what am I doing?’.

Am I right in thinking that you creatively draw from your home, London – what is it about the city that inspires you?

A hundred percent. I think it’s the energy. When I look at parts of London, like Newham or Kentish Town or Camden, I’m inspired when I see diversity being embraced. Not just that, but a resistance to assimilation. Being yourself and knowing that there is a subculture for you and that there is a different subculture over there, and you can communicate with each other on a human level. You get that a lot in East London, where I grew up. There’s so much shared experience when different cultures connect, and that melting pot definitely inspires me creatively. Being a Londoner means there’s so much to pull from. That’s our superpower, our privilege.

I read that when you moved back home during the pandemic Luganda was being spoken, and being from East London, you’ve got a bit of Cockney in the locker, you’re comfortable being a bit formal as well… When George the Poet spoke to us for our podcast he talked about the strength of code switching, or being able to connect to different registers and audiences – is this something you share in common, believe opens up different doors or sounds, when you bridge between these worlds?

I love that phrase, code switch. That’s exactly what man is talking about, because I’ll be out speaking super cockney and then I’ll maybe change to really pronounced, and then I’ll be around family members and some of my Ugandan accent will come out. It allows you to tap into so many different aspects of yourself. To be able to be yourself in different environments, but to connect to those different facets of yourself – I think is where the power comes in. Because then you understand that we’re nuanced beings. It’s not like I’m this one thing all the time, because that’s so limiting.

You’re not just a musician, but also a producer. I know you had a hand in This Is What I Mean, which is fantastic – can you talk a bit about the different hats you need to wear when producing and collaborating, and what your experience with Stormzy was like on that album?

Wearing so many different hats is something that I learned coming out of music college. They taught me how to be a proficient musician – so a songwriter, producer and engineer. When I came out of college, I went straight into the session world and much of that is helping an artist, whether that’s working on writing together, helping record or mix or produce. I’m used to wearing so many different hats that I sometimes don’t even realise when I’m taking them on and off. But I think the process of working on that album really highlighted the importance of being able to do that.

When I look at PRGRSHN – who executive produced and I worked quite closely on the album with – his ability to produce a song and then encourage someone to write and then help someone vocally record it, and then help a guitarist record something that he’s hearing in his head… him being able to do that without being drained is incredible. Because that’s hard when you’re across that many things, and you’re giving a hundred percent of your energy to each one in the pursuit of excellence.

What do you love listening to at the moment?

When I’m on Spotify I try to limit my exposure to what is going on because I know that I’m such a creative sponge. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bollywood music recently. I love Indian music and listen to a lot of ragas because of how calming they can be.

How does it feel to be signed to such a quality label – 0207 – at a relatively young age?

Being signed to a major label run by people who look like you in this country, where I’m given the time and space to create patiently – it’s a blessing. There’s been so many cases of great artists who have been signed to major labels who have felt forced to do a certain thing right out the gate. They are quite forgiving of the times when my patience can sometimes bring indecision. I think that’s the nature of my gift. I’ll make so much stuff and I’ll be in love with all of it, and then I’ll be in love with none of it. I really am thankful for this process though, especially at the age that I am.

What was the intention behind dropping a bundle of tracks with three:one, as opposed to an album, or other more traditional formats? Does it give you more freedom to introduce more variety?

I’ve always been fascinated with the triptych form, whether as a series of paintings or a series of plays, I’ve always wanted to explore the form in my own work. I feel like ‘EP’ is something of a dirty word in my world; most of my peers tend to shy away from packaging their art that way, and feel quite uncomfortable with labelling their work as that. It can sometimes feel like it lacks specificity; songs thrown together with little narrative or sonic links. On the flip side an album can often feel too big a thing to do, especially early on in your career. I think this generation of artists have a responsibility to package our art in fresh ways; we are living in an oversaturated age – at every turn – so I feel it’s our job to be bold and be specific.

When I think about the triptych the word that rings out to me is freedom. I believe that it has the ability to free not only myself as an artist; but those who choose to be inspired by it. The freedom to be an artist who makes art, not a music maker on a conveyor belt, in a factory – a cog in ‘the music industry’. I feel it gives me freedom to be more and say more.

What informed the music expressed in three tracks?

The story starts with a breakdown in a relationship that leads to so much anger, heartbreak, and the desperate filling of a void. These feelings inspired what is expressed in the music.